Monday, April 3, 2017

Great Hats, Old People Walking, Absurd Mustaches, and the Inevitability of Death

            Maira Kalman’s Principles of Uncertainty is honestly quite perplexing. The picture book format that is used throughout is oddly reminiscent of most people’s kindergarten experiences, and yet at the same time Kalman to poke fun (quite humorously I might add) at the absurdity that was the mustache of Nietzsche. As a side note, if his mustache looked anything like Kalman painted it, I believe it is safe to say that based on his poor choice of facial hair his anything he wrote should be discounted as the ravings of a mad-man, because no sane person would elect to have such ridiculous facial hair. Doing so would also save quite a few undergraduates a good deal of frustration, and of course I am not biased in this instance whatsoever. Getting back to the task at hand, Kalman truly produced an oddity of a book with this one. Originally published as an online column for The New Yorker, this book is quite literally a vicarious trip through the mind of an incredibly influential artist and designer. The book is filled with random and abrupt changes in scenery and topics, with the occasional tangent to talk about a marvelous hat that Kalman either saw, or went and purchased for herself, because honestly who doesn’t deserve a nice hat from time to time. Almost the entire work of art (because it does not really do the work justice to simply call it a book), relies quite heavily on the incongruity theory for the humor that it had within it. Even when discussing incredibly morbid topics such as the inevitability of death, Kalman is able to somehow sneak in some humor in order to keep the reader/viewer from getting too down. At one point Kalman asks herself whether “the realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief – isn’t that the central premise of everything?” (Kalman, 46) which is honestly not what someone would expect when they opened what can only truly be classified as a picture book for adults. What is incongruous about this instance is not her response, which is honestly quite deep and meaningful, but rather the illustration that accompanies it. Directly in between this deeply existential question, and Kalman’s response is a rather sad looking blue rabbit, wearing striped socks, and what appear to be saddle shoes. The illustration alone would be enough to garner some subdued chuckles from most people, or possible a good deal of confusion as to where the rabbit procured his shoes, but its placement is the most humorous aspect. This partially dressed rabbit is sitting in the middle of an internal monologue about the inevitability of death. Not only does this rabbit have nothing to do with the topic at hand, but what could it possible know about the rapidly approaching end. Despite the fact that the rabbit has gained the ability to put shoes on all four of its feet, I doubt it has gained the ability to ponder questions of this nature.

            The rest of Kalman’s work reads in this similar nature, topics switch in the middle of a page, or heavy topics are matched with an illustration that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, and are likely there to garner some laughter and keep the mood from getting too dark. The entire work reads in a way that reminds me of my history class from my junior year of high school. While my professor very rarely would discuss the meaning of life with his rather disinterested class of juniors, he did have a rather similar sense of humor to Kalman, rather dry and a bit out of the ordinary, and almost entirely unexpected. The greatest example of this comes from a class when we were watching a documentary on the Civil War, a topic like the inevitability of death, that is rather hard to make humorous. After a few minutes my teacher paused the documentary when some random man was central on the screen. We all waited patiently expecting our teacher to tell us that this man was important to the war effort, or underappreciated for his role in the war, or something that actually pertained to the topic at hand, but instead he simply said “guys I just want you to look at this man’s mustache, its honestly quite incredible, I wonder how he got it to curl up on the sides like that”. While the man’s mustache was truly mystifying, as the ends seemed to defy gravity, none of us were expecting it from a man who, up to this point, had been incredibly dry. This is something he would do a few more times before the end of the documentary, and I will give him credit, it kept us all very entertained and involved with the subject matter at hand. The entire event was entirely incongruous, much like Kalman’s book, and seemed to operate in a rather similar manner. The subject matter at hand was heavy and had to potential to be quite sad or depressing, but rather than deal with it outright, humor was used in order to take the edge off, and make it more accessible to everyone. Now I am in no way saying that my old teacher could write a book similar to Kalman’s, as it would likely just be pictures of civil war soldiers and commentary on their facial hair, but they simply share a rather obscure sense of humor, as far as mustaches are concerned. It also just shows how useful incongruity can be as it relates to humor, as something unexpected will often garner more attention and laughter than something boring and routine.   

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